House Republicans, in a lengthy report on the Justice Department's leak investigations, formally accused Attorney General Eric Holder of misleading Congress with "deceptive" testimony that he knew nothing of the "potential prosecution" of the press.
The 70-page report was released late Wednesday by Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee. To coincide with the release, lawmakers also wrote a letter to President Obama calling for a "change in leadership" at the Justice Department.
"The deceptive and misleading testimony of Attorney General Holder is unfortunately just the most recent example in a long list of scandals that have plagued the department," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement.
The report delved into the department's aggressive investigations over various security leaks, but focused in large part on the FBI affidavit seeking a search warrant for Fox News correspondent James Rosen's emails in connection with one such probe. The DOJ sought access to the documents by arguing Rosen was a likely criminal "co-conspirator" in a leak case, citing the Espionage Act.
Yet on May 15, shortly before the document was made public, Holder told the House Judiciary Committee that he hadn't heard of any effort to prosecute reporters.
"With regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I have ever been involved, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy," Holder said. He discussed the issue amid concerns about the DOJ grabbing phone records from Associated Press offices.
The newly released House report concluded that this comment was "deceptive and misleading."
The report said: "We believe that Mr. Holder's simple and direct statement had the intended effect -- to leave the members of the Committee with the impression that not only had the potential prosecution of a reporter never been contemplated during Mr. Holder's tenure, but that nothing comparable to the Rosen search warrant had ever been executed by this administration. ... On the basis of Mr. Holder's testimony, there was little doubt in the Members' minds that the legal machinery for such an undertaking had never been started."
Justice spokesman Brian Fallon on Wednesday said the latest report "was produced on a purely partisan basis" and said its findings "are contrary to the record and strongly disputed by many of the committee's own members."
The Justice Department has previously explained that the investigation involving Rosen never escalated into any prosecution of the reporter. The department has acknowledged Holder had approved of the application for the search warrant, but claims his testimony before Congress was nevertheless accurate.
The report dismissed that explanation. "We take little comfort in Mr. Holder's assurances to us now that the Department never intended to prosecute Mr. Rosen when it labeled him a criminal suspect in 2010," the report said. "Tarnishing a journalist as a suspect in a national security investigation is not something that should be taken lightly. Espionage is a serious federal crime, punishable by up to a decade in prison. In essence, the Justice Department dangled Mr. Rosen over a cliff. But the American people were then assured by Mr. Holder that this was appropriate because there was never a potential of him falling to his doom."
The Justice Department has since completed a review of its policies for investigations involving journalists, and has called for a number of reforms. The House GOP report praised some of these efforts. But it also questioned one particular recommendation that the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 be changed so that a journalist can be targeted only when they are the focus of a criminal probe for conduct beyond normal news-gathering.
The report claimed, though, that this was already the intent of the law.
"Mr. Holder attempted to disguise his clearly erroneous reading of the statute as a defect in the law," the report said. "Rather than admit that he gave deceptive testimony, and that Mr. Rosen was actually a target of prosecution (and further raise the ire of the media), Mr. Holder instead represented that Mr. Rosen was never a true suspect."
This explanation, the report claimed, served "only to provide cover for Mr. Holder's misleading testimony."
But a department spokesman said the department has already revised its own guidelines, urging Congress to do its part.
"Providing additional safeguards for journalists will require action by Congress. If the report's authors genuinely wish to further protect journalists, they should work to pass the bipartisan media shield legislation that the Department has already endorsed," the spokesman said.